Half a century after the U.S. surgeon general’s historic report outlining the deadly health dangers of smoking, fewer Kentuckians smoke, but the state remains at the top of the list nationally for the number of smokers.
Currently 27 percent of adults in Kentucky smoke, said Amy Jeffers, director of Pathways Regional Prevention Center and manager of the Kentucky Tobacco Prevention Enhancement site.
Nationally, 18 percent of adults smoke, according to the 2014 report, which was released Friday. That is dramatically down from the 42 percent of adults who smoked in 1964, when the first report was issued, Jeffers said.
Deaths attributable to smoking also have decreased since the first report, she said. The most current statistics show 7,800 adults die in Kentucky from smoking-related illnesses each year.
The outlook for children is sobering: about 107,000 children alive today will die prematurely if current rates continue, she said. However, that figure has decreased. When Jeffers first began monitoring the statistic 13 years ago, it was 115,000.
With above-average cancer rates, Kentucky could see a dramatic reduction in cancer deaths if everyone in the state stopped smoking: 90 percent of lung cancer cases are related to smoking. “If we could eliminate smoking, we could almost eliminate lung cancer,” she said.
Another significant issue in Kentucky is second-hand smoke, especially exposure by children in the home. It leads to more cases of asthma and middle-ear infections, among others. Among the consequences are children missing more days of school. Smoking has even been linked to cavities. “There is no part of the body that is not impacted,” Jeffers said.
Findings in the report indicate that, while fewer people are smoking, there are more dangers from smoking than was believed half a century ago. In fact, the cigarettes they puff on may be more dangerous than the butts in 1964.
The typical cigarette contains more than 7,000 chemicals, some 70 of which are carcinogenic. Some cigarettes today are more addictive because chemical additives convey the nicotine to the brain quicker.
One of every three deaths could be smoke-related, the report indicates, and nearly all lung cancer is related to smoking.
It also causes colorectal and liver cancer, and has been linked to prostate and breast cancer.
Smoking also is linked to emphysema, chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis, heart disease, stroke, abdominal aortic aneurysms, diabetes immunity disorders and eye diseases. It is related to pregnancy complications, birth defects, erectile dysfunction and fertility issues.
Following the release of the report, seven top health and medical organizations called for a national initiative to reduce smoking rates by about half, protect against second-hand smoke, and eliminate death and disease from tobacco.
The seven groups include the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, American Heart Association, American Lung Association, Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Legacy.
Among steps they recommended are tobacco tax increases, smoke-free workplace laws, media campaigns, insurance coverage for cessation programs, and more programs to keep children from starting and to help smokers quit.
The trend in northeast Kentucky has been encouraging, with Ashland having enacted a ban on smoking in most public buildings and Ashland Community and Technical College having gone smoke-free as well.
Some school districts have enacted smoke-free policies, too.
MIKE JAMES can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (606) 326-2652.